by Joe Stead
Among the many memorable productions at the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse were Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit’s “Phantom” (Left) and “A Chorus Line” (Right).
One of the great innovations of Chicago theatre in the 1960’s was the creation of America’s first and finest dinner theatre, the Candlelight.
As early as the mid 1950’s, the fledgling Barksdale Theatre discovered that it could lure hungry theatre-goers to their rustic and historic Hanover Tavern just outside Richmond, Virginia, for an extremely diverse range of plays. I had the good fortune of knowing three of the original founders of Barksdale, which never considered itself a “dinner theatre”. Meals were always optional, the dining areas were seperate from the theatre space, and it would be hard to imagine “Antigone,” “Equus,” “The Boys in the Band,” “The Crucible” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” being performed in a conventional dinner theatre.
(Left) Mayor Richard P. Lambert congratulates William Pullinsi on the original Candlelight opening. (Right) The new Candlelight Dinner Playhouse opens in 1964.
In 1959, William Pullinsi booked a 550 seat room at the Presidential Arms in downtown Washington, D.C. and introduced the idea of dinner and theatre in one convenient and economical package. At the time, Pullinsi was still a freshman at Catholic University. The first two seasons featured a mix of imported touring shows and original productions using stars and New York directors. The operation was financed by Pullinsi’s grandfather Bill Altier. Tony D’Angelo, a fellow student, designed and built most of the sets, and Pullinsi’s mother June assisted with the direction.
On July 7, 1961, the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse opened in Chicago in a converted roadside tavern at 5508 S. Archer, which was owned by Altier. It boasted 50 tables for two around a square center stage. For the first few years, the Candlelight seasons consisted mostly of lightweight comedies including “The Moon is Blue,” “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter,” “Born Yesterday,” “Tunnel of Love,” “Champagne Complex” and “Two for the Seasaw,” among others. Ann Barzel, reviewing the maiden effort for Chicago’s American, wrote “The adventuresome spirit that has characterized Chicago in business, art, and living manifests itself in a new kind of cabaret. The idea, naturally, is that of a young man, Bill Pullinsi, 21.”
Barzel, noting that “The comedy bounces along as gayly as ever,” explained that “The play, understandably, is the thing, but the dinner is good. The entrees do not come in a wide choice, but there are extra good desserts including home made apple pie (your mother should bake as well).” Smoking and drinking were permitted during the show, however there was no service while the play was under way. The whole evening would set you back a whopping $3.95! In 1964, a custom built theatre-in-the-round was erected at 5620 S. Harlem in suburban Summit. The two-level space initially seated 350 but was later expanded to a 550 capacity.
Along the way, the Candlelight implemented a number of innovations. “Prior to our opening,” Pullinsi recalled, “there were very few professionally produced local plays. No Chicago company ran 52 weeks a year, no show ran longer than three weeks, and no theatre operated successfully without the star system. Candlelight opened with a resident company (no stars), ran each show six weeks or longer, and produced 52 weeks a year. Our success greatly influenced other theatre companies”. The Candlelight, under the technical direction of Tony D’Angelo, pioneered the use of a state-of-the-art hydraulic stage that could be raised and lowered quickly to change scenery. Because of this, the Candlelight productions could be far more lavish than other arena theatres.
In 1965, the Candlelight did its first two musicals, “The Boy Friend” and the Chicago Premiere of “She Loves Me”. It was a recipe that would stick with the organization for the next three decades. Not only did the Candlelight serve up the popular hits we all know and love, such as “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Man of LaMancha,” “The Sound of Music,” “Oliver,” “My Fair Lady” and “Hello, Dolly!,” it introduced Chicagoland audiences to some rarities as well. The Candlelight was the only theatre in the nation (outside of New York and Los Angeles) to do the controversial anti-war play “Macbird,” which satirized Lyndon B. Johnson as a modern day Macbeth. The Murray Schisgal comedy “Jimmy Shine” featured the professional debuts of Shelley Long and Mandy Patinkin. Jim Jacobs penned the blockbuster musical “Grease” in the Candlelight’s dressing room during the run.
The Candlelight also made local stars of Lee Pelty, Dale Benson, Hollis Resnik and Paula Scrofano, among others. Pelty made a career of playing the philosophical Jewish dairyman in “Fiddler on the Roof,” and Miguel de Cervantes’ mad knight in “Man of La Mancha”. He was most closely identified with his Jeff Award winning role of Tevye in “Fiddler,” which he played for two years in the original Candlelight run, and followed up in numerous revivals. Veteran actress Iris Lieberman was named by the Jeff Committee as “Most Promising Player” for her role as daughter Hodel in the 1971 production. Ironically enough, Pelty and Lieberman teamed up again over three decades later in Theatre at the Center’s revival of “Fiddler,” also directed by Candlelight founder William Pullinsi. No longer father and daughter, they played husband and wife!
No show proved too tough for the theatre-in-the-round, from the modest but provocatively titled “Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?” (Left) to the water-drenched “Singin’ in the Rain” (Right), which dropped 30,000 gallons of “Rain” on the octagon-shaped stage.
The Candlelight drew consistently strong reviews and a record number of Jeff Awards and nominations. The Chicago Tribune’s Richard Christiansen noted that “Producer/Director William Pullinsi’s shows have remained consistent in their briskness, energy and miniature spectacle.” In another review, Christiansen raved that “The whole Candlelight operation continues to be one of the wonders of local commercial theatre.” Hedy Weiss reported on the theatre’s technical innovations in her 1995 Chicago Sun-Times review: “Of all the challenges that Candlelight has set for itself over the years, the staging of the full-fledged downpour that is the centerpiece of Singin’ in the Rain may be the greatest. But with a giant tarpaulin covering the theatre’s rotating, hydraulically powered stage, Candlelight’s technical wizards, including set designer Bill Bartelt and producer Anthony D’Angelo, have found a way to let a hard rain fall. As Don Lockwood, the vaudevillian-turned-matinee idol so indelibly played by Gene Kelly, the young and appealing Bernie Yvon taps his way through sheets of rain, puddle-hopping with contagious glee”.
In 1972, a spanking new 425 seat proscenium theatre opened adjacent to the Candlelight, thanks to the highly successful 2 year run of “Fiddler on the Roof”. It was called the Forum and was often employed for more unconventional work such as the Chicago Premiere of “Child’s Play,” the American Premiere of “The National Health” and the World Premiere of “Boss” by Frank Galati. Some of the more challenging musical fare presented at the Forum, including the Midwest Premiere of “Company,” the American Premiere of “Robert and Elizabeth,” and the World Premiere of “Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?”. The latter was so successful it ran 3 1/2 years at the Forum. In its later days, the Forum became known for its rib-tickling farces, often starring Chicago’s beloved funny man Dale Benson. “I just ate the place up,” Benson recalled. I couldn’t wait to go to work each day…going to work was always something to look forward to.”
Candlelight shows ranged from the small cast “Five Guys Named Moe” (Left) to the large and lavish “Will Rogers Follies” (Right).
In fact, it is the laughter that many of its alumni remember best about the Candlelight to this day, laughter not only on stage but off. That and the black bottom sundaes and cheesy bread. Many remember the Candlelight as a close-knit family, which isn’t too surprising because it was. There was the Pullinsi-Altier clan at the mast, as well as Tony D’Angelo and his wife Eileen LaCario, who worked as Marketing Director and is now a formidable staff member of Broadway in Chicago. There were the Kolack brothers (Jeffrey and Greg), the husband and wife team of Paula Scrofano and John Reeger, and several couples who met and married while working at the Candlelight.
There was a second generation of Candlelight performers, too, as Richard Christiansen observed in his 1978 review of “Mame” in the Chicago Tribune. “The happiest performance of all comes from 10-year-old Adam Pelty, son of musical comedy actor Lee Pelty, as young Patrick. Unlike too many child actor wind-up dolls, Pelty is a disciplined singer and dancer who also seems to understand and believe in the role he’s playing. In this case, he acts as if he really loves his Auntie Mame; and so, following his example, do we.”
Musicals proved to be the bread and butter of the dinner theatre enterprise. Not surprisingly, as fewer original musicals began to be turned out from New York, so too were there fewer hit musicals for dinner theatres to choose from. Facing the creative shortage of product, the Candlelight often turned to the tried and true classics. “Fiddler,” “Oklahoma” and “LaMancha” were all done numerous times at the Summit playhouse. The latter returned four times, each time starring Lee Pelty and Dolores Rothenberger, who did the same honors for “Fiddler”. Talk about traditions! You might also catch the occasional rarity, such as “Follies,” “Zorba,” “Mack and Mabel,” and “Nine”. The Maury Yeston musical was a particular favorite of Pullinsi’s. “Maybe it appealed to me especially because of my age, or because I’m Italian, or maybe because the score is so beautiful. In any event, it was very gratifying”.
The Candlelight took risks few other dinner theatres dared. The musical “Rags” had been a disaster on Broadway, but scored a hit in Summit. As actor Kenny Ingram remembered, “I miss Candlelight for being the only theater that took chances by doing newer productions. Black productions were far from here nor there, but Bill took chances and I thank him for that! Doing all black productions that gave Candlelight Playhouse a wonderful name all across the nation”. Ingram appeared in Candlelight productions of “My One and Only,” “A Chorus Line,” “Dreamgirls,” “Five Guys Named Moe,” and “Song and Dance,” and was recently featured in the Broadway cast of “The Lion King”. Tony Award winner Mark Jacoby starred in “Nine,” and Stephen Arlen, the leading man of “Robert and Elizabeth,” “Funny Girl” and “My Fair Lady,” went on to star in the original Broadway production of “La Cage aux Folles,” while leading lady Derin Altay moved from “Oklahoma!” at the Candlelight to the starring role of “Evita” on Broadway.
It was a class act right up to its final production of “Cabaret” in 1997. Today, it may be hard for audiences who never experienced the Candlelight to understand what a truly remarkable place this was. During the 1980’s and 90’s, I was the beneficiary of the Candlelight legacy as dinner theatres from Orlando, Florida to Washington, D.C., Baltimore , MD and Virginia provided the meat and potatoes (no pun intended) of my theatre training and experience. For the audiences that kept the industry alive and prosperous for over three decades, it was the ultimate in one stop shopping entertainment value. For the many talented performers who got their starts on the dinner theatre boards, it was an opportunity to make a living and have a lot of fun at the same time.
Actress Lara Filip only did one show at the Candlelight (“A Christmas Carol”), but “there was something about being cast there that, for me, meant I had arrived at my career as a real professional in this city”. Jamie Pullinsi remembered sitting in the dark theatre and thinking about all the history. “The stage itself had a very interesting energy. You could feel the ghosts as you did in Follies. The intimate space and the design made it so unique and special. I remember walking around the theatre the last night before it closed and how sad I felt. My dad and Tony deserve a lot of recognition.” Founder, Producer and Director Bill Pullinsi sums up, “It was great to introduce so many new people to theatre that wouldn’t have gone downtown. But the dinner theatre made it more like entertainment to them so they came and liked what they saw, then went on to become theater-goers – downtown, NY, London. That was the most rewarding and I believe made the most lasting impact”.
(Left) Lee Pelty was a Candlelight tradition in his signature role in “Fiddler on the Roof”. (Right) The Candlelight shared its production of “Into the Woods” with the Marriott Theatre, giving audiences in both Summit and Lincolnshire a chance to see Melissa Dye, Shannon Cochran, Ross Lehman, Jennifer Nees and Sam Samuelson tackle Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Tony Award winner.
(Left) The great James Harms gets a lift and the first of three record-setting Jeff Awards for the same role as Albin/ZaZa in the gender-bending “La Cage aux Folles”. (Right) The Candlelight’s energetic production of “Evita” kept audiences crying and cheering for six months.
The Many Faces of Hollis Resnik (Left to Right) “Evita,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Into the Woods” and “Song and Dance”. “I grew up at the Candlelight,” the actress/singer recalls. “Bill gave me my first musical theatre job as Kim in Bye, Bye, Birdie and the rest is history! I will never forget Nine and Evita – Chicago firsts (after the tour of course) – but the theatre stepped into a new area of producing with those two shows. And the kitchen?? How can anyone ever forget the kitchen???”
The end of an era: Two productions from 1996, (Left) “Funny Money” at the Forum, and (Right) “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” at Candlelight. Both theatres would be leveled within a year, bringing to an end a bright and brilliant chapter in Chicago theatre history.